Crime: the truth

New figures reveal that crime has fallen 39 per cent over the past nine years - the biggest sustained fall since the 19th century
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If you pick up a newspaper, turn on the television, or listen to a politician, you would think that Britain was struggling to cope with a rising tide of violence and lawlessness. Binge drinkers, gun-toting gangsters, serial sex offenders and teenage tearaways appear to hold sway over large parts of the country.

If you pick up a newspaper, turn on the television, or listen to a politician, you would think that Britain was struggling to cope with a rising tide of violence and lawlessness. Binge drinkers, gun-toting gangsters, serial sex offenders and teenage tearaways appear to hold sway over large parts of the country.

Yet Britain's most authoritive crime survey published today reveals the country is enjoying the longest sustained drop in crime for more than a century.

In the past nine years, the number of crimes experienced by people in England and Wales has fallen by 39 per cent.

The decline in some categories is quite staggering: car thefts, burglaries, domestic violence and assaults on people who are known to each other have all dropped by about half, according to the British Crime Survey (BCS). In every category of crime - including violent crime - there has been a decrease, the BCS found.

The risk of becoming a victim of crime has fallen from 40 per cent in 1995 to 26 per cent - the lowest level since the survey began in 1981.

Unlike the police's recorded crime figures, the BCS, in which 40,000 people aged 16 or over are questioned, includes details of unreported crimes - typically domestic violence, minor fights, failed burglaries, and car break-ins. Only about half of crimes are thought to be reported to the police.

The figures show an estimated 11,700,000 crimes were committed in the year ending April 2004, compared with a peak of 19,300,000 in 1995. Not since 1981, when the total was a little over 11 million, have the figures been so low.

The last time Britain enjoyed such a sustained fall in crime was in 1898 - a decade in which, ironically, Jack the Ripper was terrorising Whitechapel, east London, murdering and mutilating at least five women. But, despite the historic long-term changes, many of today's headlines will almost certainly concentrate on a second report and will highlight a 12 per cent rise in violent crime recorded by the police and a 1 per cent hike in overall recorded offences in England and Wales.

So why the huge discrepancy and why do so many people still think that crime is rising?

The main difference is the way the figures are compiled. The second report focuses on recorded crimes and are those the police make an official note of - and have been subject to sweeping changes in the past few years. In 1998, common assaults - an offence that included pushing and shoving - were recorded for the first time. In 2002, the police adopted a system that meant if anyone reports being a victim they have to be recorded on the official statistics unless it can be shown to be a bogus claim.

An example of how ludicrous that can be is the inclusion, this year, of a recorded offence of treason which was an allegation made by a resident of Essex against George Galloway, the MP for Glasgow Kelvin, for his anti-war stance.

One effect of the changes is to increase the number of recorded offences, particularly low-level violence.

Another explanation is the media's obsession with bad news and its appetite for murder, sex, and violence.

Surveys have found that readers of red-top and middle-market newspapers such as the Daily Mail have the greatest fear of crime and the fears are out of proportion with reality.

Other studies have found that when householders are questioned about crime in their neighbourhoods they have a more accurate idea of the scale; it is only when they talk about what is happening nationally that they have an exaggerated fear of being a victim.

The BCS is not, however, without its faults. It does not include crimes experienced by children under 16, or to businesses or - because it is based on face-to-face interviews - murders (of which there were 853 last year).

But it is widely considered to be the best indicator of crime trends and includes all other crimes. The massive decline in property crimes - which are also reflected in the police figures - are considered to be partly because of better security in homes. That is linked to the property boom that has seen people fitting locks and alarms as they move into their new homes.

Successive governments have also had an impact. Margaret Thatcher is credited with hand-bagging the car industry and forcing it to install better security features, such as alarms and immobilisers.

David Blunkett, meanwhile, has pressurised mobile phone companies to improve security and reverse the trend in stolen handsets.

Professor Paul Wiles, the director of research, development and statistics at the Home Office, believes there has also been a huge change in the attitude of society.

"You have had a long-term change in our attitude towards violence and the acceptability of casual violence.

"There has been a big cultural shift about what is acceptable in terms of domestic violence and the physical punishment of children."

Professor Wiles believes stability in the economy has been an important factor with fewer people out of work and less unrest, reducing the desire and opportunity for crime.

The last big increase in crime coincided with the late 1980s recession. Worryingly for the Government, statisticians have predicted a slowing economy could see crime rise by 9.5 per cent in the next four years if the criminal justice system fails to respond to the trends.

There has, however, been a genuine rise in some types of crime. Homicide has been creeping up, linked to the rise in gun crime. Offences of extreme violence associated with drugs, particularly crack cocaine dealing, are also on the rise.

But, according to Professor Wiles, the country is not seeing a rise in violent crime. The BCS says it dropped by 3 per cent in the past year and by 5 per cent in the past nine years.

"Stranger violence is not going up but it's not going down much," he said. He also said it was an "urban myth" that anti-social behaviour was on the rise and that fear of crime was increasing.

The BCS showed fear of crime was falling at the same rate as crime itself.

With the long-term decline in lawlessness, why then were Mr Blair and Mr Blunkett launching an anti-crime initiative on Monday, promising an extra 20,000 civilian Community Support Officers, and further crackdowns on anti-social behaviour?

Part of the reason is voters are still complaining about low-level crime in their neighbourhoods - vandalism and street yobs - and there is a fear the country's binge drinking culture could see a rise in violence.

Community Support Officers will provide a visible presence and Mr Blunkett is banking on them helping cut the all-important fear of crime.

The Government knows crime is going to be an election issue and is willing to invest millions to head off the Tories.

The Prime Minister and his Home Secretary have announced a five-year target of cutting crime by 15 per cent. But that apparently noble aim looked a little underhand yesterday when it emerged they were including the 5 per cent cut achieved last year. They are left with a less ambitious goal of bringing down crime by 10 per cent in four years.

Mr Blunkett insisted yesterday he did not know that the BCS, drawn up by his Home Office staff, would reveal a 5 per cent reduction in crime. Taking Mr Blunkett at his word, he already knew the results of the previous nine months.

Mark Oaten, the home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "To suggest David Blunkett did not have a fair idea of these figures in advance of his statement on Monday simply beggars belief. The honest and decent thing is for him to take the latest set of figures as his starting point."

Professor Wiles concluded: "We have had nine years of decline in crime. The real challenge now is, can we keep it going down so that we are a real low-crime society."